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Kitchen Language: What Is Quenelle?

Hilton’s new executive pastry chef Cindy Khoo demonstrates this deceptively simple technique that elevates any plate to fine-dining standard.
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Brush up on your food terminology with us, from commonplace colloquialisms to obscure obsessions, as we demystify culinary lingo in our Kitchen Language column. In this edition is quenelling, a plating technique that will elevate your dish to restaurant-worthy status in one fell swoop.

A quenelle (say kuh-nell) is a perfectly smooth, rugby-ball scoop of any soft food that instantly upgrades your plating and gives dishes a sophisticated touch. At a fine-dining restaurant, you might see this technique used across dishes throughout your 10-course degustation: in a graceful oval scoop of pate atop a crisp baguette, displayed in a generous dollop of caviar or in a spoonful of tangy tapenade. It might be even more apparent at dessert when ice cream, mousse, whipped cream and sorbet are served in an elegant quenelle.

The name is taken from a dish in traditional French cuisine called quenelles de brochet, referring to a mixture of creamed fish combined with breadcrumbs and an egg binding, formed into an egg-like shape and poached. Now, a quenelle is any other food made into a similar shape, such as ice cream, beef tartare or mashed potato.
A quenelle can be done with one spoon or two (Pic: ShutterStock)
A quenelle can be done with one spoon or two (Pic: ShutterStock)
Now that you know what it is, the question is: can you quenelle? As it turns out, it is not that easy to produce a textbook quenelle — a perfectly smooth egg with slightly pointed ends. The technique can be executed with one spoon or two, but the former yields a smoother quenelle with no apparent edges and is the one favoured by chefs.

Cindy Khoo, executive pastry chef of Hilton Singapore, remembers refining this technique under the tutelage of her mentor during her time as commis at Shangri-la Hotel Singapore. “It’s one of the basics we learnt at the start of our culinary journey. It took me a couple of months to be able to execute it confidently. At the beginning, it usually came out of shape or stuck to the spoon and we would have to redo it over and over again.”

RELATED: 5 Questions With Hilton Singapore’s Executive Pastry Chef Cindy Khoo On French Pastries 

Watch this video to see Khoo demonstrate how to quenelle a scoop of ice cream.
A quenelle seems simple in theory, but is surprisingly challenging in practice. “It’s hard to explain or teach someone how to do it,” says Khoo. “A lot of it comes down to the movement, the flair. You have to take into consideration the temperature of the room and the texture of the food you’re scooping.”

She recommends placing the spoon into a container of warm water before scooping. The spoon has to be hot enough to release the quenelle, but not so hot that it immediately melts it. “For stickier, more icy food like sorbets, you may need to rub the back of the spoon in the palm of your hand to release it from the spoon.”

It’s a technique that takes practice but is well worth the effort. “The classic and elegant shape is a timeless design that really elevates the plate by adding a touch of culinary flair to it,” says Khoo.
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